The venerable chef Chris Gould keeps the quality high one year later at his resoundingly successful restaurant, Central Provisions. And it sets the standard of excellence still for all of Portland’s aspiring fine-dining establishments.
It was like going to a double header at Central Provisions. The first inning was on Tuesday night to delectate over four small savory plates: dishes with much polish and finesse that spoke to me so completely that I didn’t even need dessert. (I’ll get to the details of that dinner in a bit.)
Upon my return visit on Wednesday for its one-year anniversary celebration, the room was packed with its nightly asylum of culinarians, and the kitchen was on point from start to finish. Portland’s food impresario, Rob Evans, was dining there with wife Nancy Pugh and a friend. And another surprise was to see chef Graham Botto on the line in CP’s kitchen, having left his long-standing position as chef de cuisine at Back Bay Grill.
The evening was also a tribute to Chris Gould’s cheffy comrades, Karl Deuben and Bill Leavy, who presented a preview menu from their soon-to be-re-opened East Ender. The actual dishes numbered just four items—merely a trailer; but it was one of the reasons to go there two nights in a row. I sampled the “pastrami” cured salmon with wisps of translucent radish and a lacing of mustard seeds filled the bowl beautifully. I also had Deuben and Leavy’s lilting vegetable fritters wrapped in a lithesome batter and deep fried crisp and bright. Were they ground-breaking dishes? No. Were they good, absolutely!
I finished off the meal with one of CP’s apocryphal spreads: crostini topped with the livers of guinea hen, exhibiting marvelous shots of flavor and texture, so creamy, rich and luxuriously delicious. Keeping with the liver theme, it seemed only right to go for the extravagant dessert, a foie gras parfait. Duck or goose livers began showing up in confections several years ago at trendy restaurants everywhere. From milkshakes to donuts and cakes, pastry chefs go ooh-la-la over such decadence. Here it effected the base for a luxurious silken parfait infused with the liver pate. Topped with a strawberry gelee it’s a formidable sweet.
But in my focus of rediscovering Central Provision—where they are one year after their momentous opening–I stayed with the basics at Tuesday’s dinner. I haven’t been to CP In nearly 6 months. In my April 20, 2014 Portland Press Herald Dine Out Maine review I gave it 5 very bright stars, saying, in part, “. . .It’s Portland’s “newest and brightest star, ” where “chef and co-proprietor Chris Gould has created some of the most inventive food in Portland right now.”
This is still so today where locally sourced world-class dining rips off the menu with ease. The menu offers a fine sampling of local oysters, and I chose three briny mollusks—Bagaduce, North Haven and Otter Cove– presented on a mound of crushed ice. I downed them quickly without mignonette—they didn’t need a thing. Dinner progressed to a robust spicy beef salad laced with cilantro and peanuts with a fairly hot lube of sriracha. The dish had vigor and heat—a kind of heartiness that you don’t always find in many of Gould’s more subtle preparations.
I cooled off with a beet and kale salad mingling with little chunks of avocado, green peppercorns and lemon juice—a dazzling mélange of sweet, soft, soothing flavors and a good way to get your inevitable fix of kale. A friend sitting next to me at the bar thought the greens looked wilted and overdressed. Hardly so in the eating. Between plates the kitchen sent out an interlude of uni with yolk of quail egg—a dab of New World comfort food on a spoon.
The great thing about small-plate dining is you get to devise your own tasting menu. Admittedly my selections were a bit heavy, my own doing. Nevertheless I happily dug into a dish of crabmeat over house-made waffles—a riff on the old favorite, chicken and waffles. The buckwheat-battered waffles lent a rich component and the topping of crabmeat with spicy mayo and bonito flakes conspired to meld fish with savory in a luscious pairing. My only qualm was this: I would have preferred it as a hot dish rather than served cold, which I think tempered the contrast of the two components.
I kept up my hearty selection of plates with the carnitas tostada. No regrets there even if I was getting full. The housemade corn-flour tostada had great texture and flavor to support the topping of braised chunks of pork, flecks of queso fresco, a dash of chipotle and a spritz of tart lime crema setting up a sweet-sour contrast that was tantalizing.
I pondered the inevitability of dessert: key lime pie (an old-fashioned Gould family recipe); brioche cinnamon roll with sea salt or a squash bread pudding. Honestly it would have been too much food, and I opted instead to sip on the rest of my excellent Negroni that bartender Rob Roy made so well and reflect on an utterly fine meal perfectly served.